As personalized learning becomes more in-demand, more educators advocate for competency education

competency-basedStudent-centered learning is at the forefront of many education reforms today, as stakeholders realize that personalizing learning is key to student success. And competency-based learning–the idea that students advance based on concept mastery and not time- or grade-level restraints–is a key part of student-centered learning.

Supporters maintain that education’s design as it is today, which centers around time and curriculum, doesn’t support students the way they need to be supported in order to prepare for a competitive global economy. Critics wonder if all student groups are well-served by the model, and have said there can be too much testing.

“Competency-based education is really foundational for true student-centered learning and personalized learning,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), speaking during an April 28 web briefing.

(Next page: What does competency-based learning look like?)

Often called proficiency-based, outcome-based, standards-based, or performance-based education, the core idea is to eliminate time and place as barriers to learning, and this idea is a focus in many state reforms, Patrick said.

Competency-based learning, she noted, is aligned around five key elements:

  1. Performance: Students advance upon mastery.
  2. Goals: Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  3. Demonstrate: Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  4. Feedback: Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  5. Problem solving/higher order thinking: Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

“Competency-based learning is fundamental to being able to personalize learning at scale, and it challenges almost all of our assumptions about the present system,” Patrick said. “When you rethink a system transformation toward competency-based learning, you are literally going to be challenging everything in the system.”

What might such a system look like?

  • Every student has a personalized learning map
  • Data systems support teachers and students, clearly indicating their level of progress on each academic standard and efficiency standard in order to monitor student progress
  • Rubrics help teachers understand what proficiency looks like
  • Students know their learning targets and collaborate with each other
  • Adults are in shifting roles

“Competency-based learning matters because it flips time into being a resource, and not a constraint,” Patrick added. “It gives us a way to help better serve our students.”

Some states are implementing competency-based frameworks in an effort to personalize student learning and support students’ needs, as noted in A K-12 Federal Policy Framework for Competency Education: Building Capacity for Systems Change, an issue brief from iNACOL and CompetencyWorks, which Patrick referenced during the briefing.

New Hampshire was the first state to focus on competency-based education, and since 2005 its education policies have continued to focus on student-centered learning.

State policymakers in Rhode Island have made personalized learning a priority and are focusing on targeted instruction and comprehensive assessments.

And in Detroit, a nonprofit school turnaround organization used a competency-based system when it launched a blended model at A.L. Holmes, a low-performing K-8 public school. Student math and reading proficiency skyrocketed and the model was expanded to other schools.